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Copperfield introducing new stage illusions while inspiring cinematic creation

David Copperfield is describing a new piece he developed for his show that happens in the middle of the audience.

“What I’m doing took two years to get it right, and it’s going to push magic forward,” he says. “It’s fooled every magician that’s seen it.”

Then, he leans back and, almost as if it just occurred to him, adds, “That’s kind of why I’m here. That’s why I’m on Earth, to do that. The real reason I’m here. Film directors direct films, and I do that.”

That epiphany was once rather obvious to anyone with a passing interest in magic. Copperfield was the innovator, the guy who brought out the new stuff and moved the art forward.

If he didn’t do it — with his big Las Vegas warehouse and his financial resources — then who else would?

And then, it seemed the hypothetical question would be put to the test.

For much of the 2000s, magic’s household name was pulling off the illusion of hiding in plain sight. He was right there at the MGM Grand, working hard as usual. But he was doing the same material, rotating in and out some “greatest hits,” but no longer showing us anything new.

Had he earned the right? Or was that wrong? On the other side of the MGM, we still demand the Rolling Stones kick ass in their 70s. But what is required of a famous magician at age 56?

This thought is voiced aloud: “You could probably be allowed to coast if you wanted to.”

“I did,” he says matter-of-factly.

He had his reasons.

For one, “I let the fact that people were copying me really affect my creative motivation. It was so much, I just couldn’t do it.”

The magic trade is thick with rivalries and cross-accusations of stealing material. Copperfield has been on both sides of it. But he adamantly feels like his legacy is too quickly forgotten by television executives, and that other magicians dodge legal protection of his illusions by stealing the concept, but making minor changes to the method.

Then there was Musha Cay, the island resort in the Bahamas he bought in 2006 and turned into a billionaire’s paradise. Guests such as Oprah Winfrey or Google founder Sergey Brin can search for mermaids, treasure hunt with pirates or just party naked.

“It’s crazy good,” he says of the resort. “I needed it. I needed to get away. I don’t know if it was a painter’s blue period or what, but for five years I did that.”

To all that, add fatherhood. Copperfield, whose playboy past fueled the tabloids, now has a high chair at the table of his MGM Skyloft suite.

On this day, toddler daughter Sky is already in New York with mother Chloe Gosselin, where he will catch up for the premiere of “Now You See Me.” The new caper movie has an end credit, “Magic Inspired By David Copperfield.”

The first-draft screenwriters, he explains, saw him perform the “portal” illusion that was in the show for at least five years. Copperfield and another person vanished from a forklift over the heads of the audience, then turned up via video on a faraway beach.

The illusion, Copperfield says he found out later, inspired the idea for a team of Robin Hood magicians who pull off daring heists. The movie “couldn’t have been made without David Copperfield and his unbelievable team,” director Louis Letterier says in a statement. “(O)nly he could help us create a new type of magic that operates on a cinematic level.”

Copperfield says he and his team brainstormed ideas for the screenwriters and later helped solve “a little plot issue at the end of the movie. I got the call and collaborated on how the movie should end, technically and plotwise.”

Copperfield will finish a Monday show and then catch a late flight for the premiere, in keeping with the workaholic ways that have him sometimes doing four shows a day.

But in the past six months or so, MGM audiences have been seeing as much as 40 minutes of new material. He’s adding it a bit at a time, but waiting until more of it is in place to relaunch the whole show next fall with a new subtitle: “Live the Impossible.”

“The show really is about doing what I’ve tried to do with my life and I keep trying to do, which is do things that haven’t been done before, that people thought were ridiculous and crazy,” he says.

“Magic is a metaphor for that. When you see something that looks impossible that I do, you can call it a trick but that’s really not fair. There’s so much hard work that goes behind it.”

One of the new segments in the show is a cellphone update of a standard known as the prediction board. Information the magician collects from the live audience is usually revealed as something he had written before the show, say, on a blackboard on the stage.

But this time, the information also shows up (in more complicated form) in an email attachment sent early in the going to everyone in the audience who participated by sending an email before the show began.

“I’ve always tried to be the pioneer of having magic happen to the audience, so they’re experiencing it, not just watching it,” he says.

So, I reiterate, “You know everybody’s coming in with a phone, so you work that into the show and do something with phones.”

This makes him wince a bit.

“You make it sound very simple. This is a year of getting it to work right. It’s not like I just do a trick with a phone. It’s like, torture.”

A coffee table in the suite is stacked with black three-ring binders, all of them stuffed with conceptual drawings tracing the development of a cute little cartoon character named Attila.

He’s an E.T. version of Topo Gigio, the little puppet who once delighted Ed Sullivan and his viewers. They included a boy named David Kotkin, who would grow up to be a famous magician.

“What made me go crazy when I was a kid? It was so real. How do I make something that makes people feel that feeling?”

An inanimate foam version of Attila is already in the act, but Copperfield’s tablet computer shows test footage of an animatronic version more fluid than any Disney ride. Attila will walk, he promises, and “magic will happen to him and around him. He helps solve life’s problems for all of us.”

A scarier, “Jurassic Park”-sized surprise is being developed in the warehouse as well. “Every five-minute piece takes two or three years to work out. It’s not fast food to me, it’s really hard work.”

And while there has been no rush so far, he says the MGM is ready to remodel the Hollywood Theatre — one of the few areas of the casino that has not had a face-lift — and it’s simply time to get on with this relaunch.

“We all need a deadline,” he says. “Or else we just make excuses for ourselves.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at
mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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